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Duke Research - Sea monsters, textbooks, come to life with iPad app

penguins on ipad app

Screen shots like these show the images, text and video stills students will have access to when they use the Cachalot app. Courtesy of Dave Johnston.

August 30, 2011

Sea monsters, textbooks, come to life with iPad app

Duke scientists and students create a new model for a portable, digital textbook -- with movies.

By Ashley Yeager

Beaufort, NC -- With a tap of his finger on his iPad, Dave Johnston opens a video, and the caca-hawnk, hawnk, hawnk of Gentoo penguins and sounds of whooshing water pour from the speakers. On screen, chunks of ice bob in Antarctic waters, as a wave rushes ashore. The penguins try desperately to waddle from the incoming water.

"We've got hundreds of videos like this. We've got pictures, sounds, pretty much every kind of media you can imagine on all sorts of sea creatures," says Johnston, a research scientist at Duke.

Now, all of that media will be available to public through a new iPad application called Cachalot. The app, designed for a Marine Megafauna course at Duke, offers a new framework for digital textbooks, the developers say.

Johnston, along with his collaborators at the university's Marine Lab and across the world, studies "charismatic" marine mammals like seals, whales and penguins. During every research expedition, the researchers increasingly make field notes and take data using their tablet computers, Flip cams and other digital devices.

It's the "charming" animals and field videos, sounds and photos that get the public and young students "hooked" on marine science and conservation, Johnston explains. “In essence, we piggyback important marine biology, ecology and conservations into the minds of students on the backs of these compelling creatures.”

He and his colleagues currently use their media cache to spur their students to delve deeper into textbook readings and research journal articles. But, Johnston says, integrating new media into the classroom is a challenge because there is no tool to seamlessly tie together the different types of information.

One minute the class is watching a video and then next, Johnston and the students have to fumble through their files to get to the related reading. It's distracting, and since humans tend to store different types of information in different areas of the mind, this ad hoc approach doesn’t encourage seamless learning, Johnston says.

"Numbers and equations go one place. Sounds and visuals from videos go into another. I want a tool that delivers the facts, sights and sounds to students all at the same time, while encouraging independent learning," he says.

Because the tool didn’t exist, Johnston decided he would create it himself, and that's how Cachalot came to be.

Cachalot, named for the French word for sperm whale, is a free iPad application that allows the general public and students to explore Johnston's and his colleagues' media cache as a portable, electronic encyclopedia. It features videos, sounds, images and fun facts about the ocean's most charismatic and mysterious creatures and is updated each week with a new animal.

The app, released Aug. 29 in the Apple iTunes store, is also a new model for portable, digital textbooks that provides a compelling alternative to the multi-billion dollar educational publishing market.

Science publishers and software developers have begun creating digital textbook apps, including Textbooks for iPad by Kno and Principles of Biology by Nature Publishing Group. "But, to me, none of them really do it right," says Adam Cue, a rising junior at Duke who works on the software development of Cachalot.

Cue says one of the most exciting things about the iPad is the impact it has on the publishing industry as a whole, from magazines, newspapers, books, and textbooks.

Johnston agrees, adding that he imagined Cachalot for the iPad because it was a portable device that would let students "play" with his media "whenever they want, wherever they are," while "subtly sneaking in messages about science and conservation."screen shot from Cachalot

Beyond the app’s encyclopedic front end, there are course readings and lessons sections which load journal articles and custom content into an intuitive interface for annotation by students. The lessons section is basically a blank page where Johnston can choose a topic, such as penguin motor skills, describe the science in text, then embed videos, sounds and images from his media cache and link students directly to the journal articles he wants them to read.

In other words, he can write his own textbook, where the readings, videos, pictures and other materials are all integrated into one, easy to navigate platform.

Johnston also explains that because he can update the entries in near real-time, just  like updating a blog, the "textbook" will never go out-of-date, or become stale, for that matter. Johnston and his colleagues have partnered with National Geographic, the Society for Marine Mammalogy and other research colleagues around the world to continue to add both new multimedia and expert-written textbook entries, giving students access to first-hand field data and letting them hear from the expert scientists who study the ocean and the animals inhabiting it.

The Cachalot app design is "perfect" for a class like Johnston's, where there is no suitable textbook, digital or otherwise, that exists today, Cue says. The design, he notes, can also be extended to other classes in the Nicholas School, at Duke or around the world.

"With Dave, I'm able to be a part of this revolution and make a fantastic product that could end up being hugely successful. [Cachalot] was a really cool idea that makes use of all the advantages that cutting edge technology like the iPad provides," says Cue, who is studying computer science.

He got involved with Cachalot through a new computer science class based on programming software for mobile devices. At the beginning of the class, the course instructors, Duke computer scientists Richard Lucic and Robert Duvall, invited individuals from across the university to come and pitch ideas for mobile applications.

Johnston came to class and pitched the students on Cachalot, and "it was really a no brainer to me," Cue says.

The app, Johnston adds, is "designed by students, for students – a compelling model for undergraduate education" and it's especially important because the students doing the programming know what features -- highlighting, note-taking -- students want and need.

Cue and the other programmers spent most of their time making sure the students using the app could have a seamless study session without ever leaving their iPad.

Back on Johnston's iPad, the penguins are losing their waddling battle with the wave. "They're so funny on land," Johnston says. A few of the penguins realize their effort is hopeless, and they surrender to the water, staggering into it with a belly flop. To see more screen shots from the app, click here.

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